The Ship’s Cook Who Took Over A .50-Caliber Machine Gun To Fight The Japanese At Pearl Harbor

A Morning of Infamy

An Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter on the aircraft carrier Akagi.

An Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter on the aircraft carrier Akagi.

On the morning of December 7th, 1941, Doris Miller was gathering laundry when the attack began, and the West Virginia became a target for Japanese torpedoes.  Dropping the laundry, he ran to his assigned battle station that was an anti-aircraft battery magazine.  It was commonplace for all personnel to have a combat task regardless of job.  When Miller arrived at his station, he noticed it was already damaged by enemy fire and rendered useless.  As such, he sought to contribute in any way he could.

He would eventually make his way up to the bridge where the captain had been mortally wounded and yet refusing to leave the ship.  Under continual attack from the Japanese, Miller picked up the captain and helped get him to a more covered position.

USS West Virginia at Pearl Harbor via commons.wikimedia.org

USS West Virginia at Pearl Harbor.

He then took his opportunity to jump into the fight at the helm of a .50-caliber machine gun.  As a cook, he had not been trained on the weapon but was given instruction on how to load it.  From there, Miller reports that he just pulled the trigger, and the gun worked just fine.

After firing for about 15 minutes and until he ran out of ammunition, Miller along with the rest of the crew eventually had to abandon ship as it was apparent that the West Virginia was mortally wounded and sinking to the bottom of the harbor.  And while Miller was not credited with an actual kill on a Japanese plane, he is pretty sure he got one as they were diving pretty close to the ships.

Destroyed Zero.

Destroyed Zero.

A Well-Deserved Commendation

After the attack, Miller was transferred to the USS Indianapolis and in January when the Navy released a list of commendations to be given for the events that day, there resided on the list an unnamed African-American sailor.

It would eventually be revealed that it was none other than cook and champion boxer Doris Miller.  The public was made aware, and Miller was a national hero, but specifically he was an inspiration for the bravery and fortitude that African-Americans would display in the coming years of war.

Chester W. Nimitz pins the Navy Cross on Doris Miller, at ceremony on board USS Enterprise (CV-6) at Pearl Harbor, May 27, 1942.

Chester W. Nimitz pins the Navy Cross on Doris Miller, at a ceremony on board USS Enterprise (CV-6) at Pearl Harbor, May 27, 1942.

There was talk of a Medal of Honor and in fact, Senator James Mead of New York submitted a bill requesting Miller receive the nation’s highest honor.  However, when the dust had settled, Doris Miller became the first African-American to be awarded the Navy Cross.

After a brief stint helping sell war bonds due to his national fame, Miller was assigned to the escort carrier Liscome Bay. This carrier would take part in the Battle of Makin Island in November of 1943 when it was torpedoed by the Japanese and sunk.  There were over 200 survivors of the Liscome Bay, but Doris Miller was not one of them.

Miller speaking with sailors and a civilian at Naval Station Great Lakes, January 7, 1943.

Miller speaking with sailors and a civilian at Naval Station Great Lakes, January 7, 1943.

He was reported missing in action, and a ceremony was eventually held in his hometown of Waco in April of 1944.  Doris Miller will go down in the books of history as a man who fought despite the beliefs of others that he could do no more than cook.

African-Americans would go on to prove their gallantry and heroism throughout the war.  The 2001 Pearl Harbor movie would see the role of Miller played by Cuba Gooding Jr.  It gave a face and a story to the man who earned it on December 7th, 1941 and he wasn’t anywhere near a kitchen when he did so.